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Interview: Taylor Grant

Here’s a resume to make almost any writer salivate: Taylor Grant has developed and written children’s series, including the animated Beetlejuice; he worked alongside the legendary Stan Lee at Stan Lee Media; he’s written short films (The Vanished and Sticks and Stones) that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival; and his work as a writer of short horror fiction has garnered him two Bram Stoker Award nominations. Most recently, he developed Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series into a webtoon, and he became Head of Global Animation at Wattpad WEBTOON Studios, where he’s served as Executive Producer on the upcoming animated television series Lore Olympus with The Jim Henson Company. He is also producing the horror feature film Gremoryland, alongside Roy Lee and Vertigo Entertainment (The Ring, It Chapter One and Two, The Departed).

Let’s start with talking about a word in your bio that a lot of readers may not be familiar with: webtoons. Webtoons are like comic books, except—since they are designed to be read on phones—they are presented as a single long vertical strip, often without panels or pages. Webtoons originated in South Korea and are now a fast-growing art form. How did you get involved with WEBTOON (the company)?

I’ve had a lifetime love affair with the medium of comics. And I’ve been quite fortunate to have the opportunity to write independent comics. I also worked with comic legends Stan Lee and Steve Gerber when I was Executive Editor at Stan Lee Media, co-developing and producing web animation.

Later, I cofounded a short-lived independent publishing company called EJC (Evil Jester Comics) that published three comic series: “Made Flesh,” “The Last Companion,” and “Evil Jester Presents.”

In 2018, I was formulating a plan on how to write and independently publish a horror graphic novel called PREY. I was considering crowdfunding, as I had had some success doing that with EJC.

But the universe works in mysterious ways, and it was right around then that a recruiter called me about a freelance opportunity to be an editor/producer of web comics at WEBTOON.

I jumped at the chance. Little did I know that within a relatively short time I would transition from a writer/producer on the Content Team to cofounding WEBTOON Studios, the first film/television production arm in the US.

How much of a learning experience has working for WEBTOON been?

It’s been the learning opportunity of a lifetime.

I had to quickly get up to speed on how to write, art direct, and produce weekly web comics. In addition, how to negotiate contracts with New York Times bestselling authors and their agents. Having some experience on the print side certainly helped, but it was a very different animal than indie comics and the pace is much faster.

Little did I know that I would be building and running a film/television division within six months. And while it’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, it has also been incredibly fulfilling to see how far we’ve come in such a short time.

 You adapted Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin for WEBTOON. Since most of your platforms’ comics are original works, was adapting a popular American horror novel series something fairly new? Did that create any particular difficulties?

It definitely had its challenges. Rot and Ruin was an experiment of sorts at the time. WEBTOON US had never attempted to adapt a novel into a web comic on our platform. The whole initiative was a pilot program with a handful of other novels. And those first few series were essentially proof of concept.

The biggest challenge for me (creatively) was that our audience is majority Gen Z, around fourteen to twenty-four, and majority female. Horror, action, and science fiction were not super popular genres back in 2019. Romance was and remains one of the largest genres.

Also, as soon as you mention zombies to some people, they immediately turn their noses up.

So, knowing that I had one or two episodes to get a somewhat non-horror audience invested in the story (lots of competition vying for the same eyeballs), I decided not to lead with zombie action—which would be my inclination if I was adapting it for film or TELEVISION to hook the audience.

Instead, I leaned into the romance aspect between the two lead characters a little more than the novel in the first few episodes, as well as the relationship between the protagonist and his big brother.

My goal was to hook readers with strong character dynamics and a possible romance brewing. Of course, I also hinted at the horror aspects to tantalize those who had come for that.

Many of those readers were fans of the original novel series by Jonathan Maberry. But that was another challenge. How do you adapt a beloved novel for a brand-new audience while giving hardcore fans the story they know like the back of their hand?

The answer? Very carefully.

Particularly because unlike almost any other form of fiction, at WEBTOON you get instantaneous feedback from thousands of readers who comment directly within the platform. They tell you instantly how they feel about your work . . . for better or for worse.

Lastly, in a web comic, particularly on our platform, you don’t have the luxury of a novel in which the reader is willing to be patient as you set up the world.

In the novel, Maberry spends a fair amount of time worldbuilding in the first five chapters, before we get to the real meat of the story. Of course, he’s brilliant at worldbuilding and it works great in the novel. But I knew that I wouldn’t have the same luxury with a comic. So I definitely had to approach the story in a different way and do the worldbuilding in a truncated form, while not losing the most important aspects of it.

 Did you have to re-train yourself as a writer to work in the vertical scrolling format?

At this point, I’ve written professionally in most mediums at least once in my career. And one of my favorite things about that is having to learn new formats and ways to tell a story. Whether it’s for radio, television, feature or short film, print comics, stage play, video game, magazines, television commercials, animation, etc.—each format has its own idiosyncrasies and challenges.

Our vertical scrolling format at WEBTOON also has its own unique storytelling aspects. Pacing is super important, less dialogue than traditional print comics, cliffhangers are useful, etc. Background art isn’t as critical as it is in a print comic.

One example that’s interesting to me is that when you’re writing a print horror comic, which I have, it’s very difficult to creep out or scare the reader because when they turn the page, they see the entire layout. It’s pretty much impossible to give a jump scare unless it’s a splash page.

However, with the vertical scrolling format, the reader doesn’t know what image is coming up in the next panel until they scroll up. That gives the horror creator an advantage because they can add a shocking panel, and the reader has no warning until they see it in real time. Or you can stretch and extend a specific panel to build atmosphere, dread, and suspense.

Rot and Ruin was previously adapted into a traditional graphic novel series. How aware of that did you need to be?

The previous print comic series was a spinoff story with the same characters from the novels. So I read it just to make sure I had full context of the Rot and Ruin universe. But my comic at WEBTOON is the only true graphic adaptation of the novel.

Was Rot and Ruin’s author Jonathan Maberry at all involved in the WEBTOON adaptation?

We showed him character designs at the beginning and a few of the first episodes in the early stages. He was very pleased.

He offered a few suggestions, but to his credit, gave us his trust and told us to go with God. To be honest, when you’re doing a weekly comic, you’re lucky if you can make your deadline each week. We don’t have any real wiggle room for lots of script revisions.

Fortunately, Jonathan was always very supportive of the comic publicly and has told me personally that he thought we did a fantastic job. That alone made it all worth it for me—I have such deep respect for the man.

The Rot and Ruin WEBTOON comic has had over thirteen million reads around the world. To traditional readers, that probably sounds huge! Is that number routine at WEBTOON?

We have many comics with tens of millions of reads. But thirteen million is a great number for a horror comic, especially one with only one season’s worth of episodes. Forty-eight episodes, to be exact.

In fact, it hit the number one slot in the horror category every week during its run in 2020. Take that, pandemic!

You’ve also worked in traditional television cartoon series, including creating one in 1998 called Monster Farm (that featured characters with names like “Frankenswine” and “Count Cluckula”). What kind of experience was that?

To be honest, Monster Farm was not a particularly good experience for me, and I wasn’t treated well by the lead executive. However, it boggles my mind that occasionally people find me online who are fans of the (relatively obscure) animated series and occasionally thank me for creating it. That is definitely gratifying.

That said, I did story development and wrote scripts for both live action and animation in the children’s entertainment field for several years. Shows like Beetlejuice, The Accuser, and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. And there is something magical about creating or writing something on paper and then seeing actors walking around (in costume on set or on a TELEVISION set) and knowing that what you’re seeing sprang from your own mind.

You know we have to talk about Stan Lee, who you worked for developing animated web series. What was working with him like?

Stan hired me personally, and to have the opportunity to develop web animated series with him was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Stan could be stubborn about his ideas sometimes, but we got along very well. He always treated me with respect.

One example I remember clearly is when we were developing The Accuser, which became one of our more popular webisode series. In the story, the hero uses a wheelchair.

Stan’s idea was that his wheelchair could transform into a suit of armor. We had a couple artists try to make that work but they struggled and took the transformation too literally.

This was in the late 90s and CGI was still relatively new. But I tried to explain to Stan that we didn’t need to see all the machinations in detail of the transformation. That it could be like segmented armor and transform instantaneously. Sort of like techno-magic. This was years before it was used effectively in the Iron Man movies)

Stan fought me on the details, and I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to make it work. So, I drove down to the Blockbuster video down the street and rented Tim Burton’s Batman and the 90s Lost in Space film.

I sat Stan down and showed him the scene when Batman activates “shields” and suddenly armor plating envelops the Batmobile. Then I showed him the scene in Lost in Space when Matt Leblanc activates his helmet, and this cool segmented armor suddenly envelops his head.

Finally, Stan understood what I was pitching and agreed, but it was quite a battle of wills for a while. Haha.

But we spent many lunches and meetings together—just the two of us breaking story—and I wouldn’t trade those cherished memories for anything. I’ll always have great love for Stan.

 All this background in developing comics and children’s animation would hardly lead one to expect you’d also write horror fiction for adults, which you started publishing in the 2000s. Had you always written horror, or was it something you came to later on?

 When I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, I read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, and the novella “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin. Those three stories were life-changing for me as a reader.

And even though all three of those titles are sometimes classified as science fiction, it was really the horror elements of I Am Legend and “Sandkings” that captured my imagination the most.

I suppose at that point you could say I went to the dark side. There was no turning back to general YA fiction from there. I was hooked on adult horror for life—and short fiction in particular.

Strangely enough, becoming an author didn’t occur to me until much later in life, after I had already had a career as a screenwriter for television and film. But I have to confess there was a dream buried deep in the recesses of my heart to have a short story appear in an anthology or magazine at some point in my life. Though for a long time it was more of a fantasy than a tangible goal.

To be completely honest, it was my frustration at all the creative compromises I had to make as a screenwriter and as a copywriter in the field of advertising that drove me to write prose.

I wanted to write something that was completely me. For once, I didn’t want to “write to market” and produce something just because I wanted to sell it. I wanted to write stories that I would like to read. I wanted to find my muse again. To find my voice.

And that’s exactly what I did. Fortunately, as it turns out, those stories ended up being salable too.

I’m not a prolific writer of short stories. But I am extremely grateful to report that I’ve sold every short story that I’ve written.

Back to your question, I’ve written what I would describe as three literary stories, one pulp fiction story, and the remaining prose fiction has been horror or horror/science fiction.

You released two acclaimed collections of short horror fiction: The Dark at the End of the Tunnel (2015) and The Many Deaths of Cole Parker and Other Stories (2020). Your stories often feature male protagonists who are either disturbed or (as with your Bram Stoker Award-nominated story “The Infected”) from a line of disturbed men. What is it about middle class American men that you think makes them such ideal vehicles for horror?

I have witnessed many people living lives of quiet desperation. Men and women who find themselves stuck in life situations they never imagined for themselves. People who feel trapped under the weight of responsibilities from families or peer pressure, and thus have watched helplessly as their dreams slip away. There is a lot of darkness to mine there.

Also, I’ve experienced the horrors of soul-crushing jobs enough to write about it with some authenticity.

I think those types of stories can be quite relatable, since so many of us have probably experienced at least one soul-sucking job in our lives and wondered if we would ever see our dreams come true.

There is a well-known phrase that is often misquoted or attributed to different people. It goes something like this: “Many people die with their music still in them. Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.”

I’ve explored this theme a few times in my stories. I think it has universal appeal. Some of my readers have told me that those particular stories are horrific but also . . . oddly inspiring (as a good cautionary tale can be.)

I couldn’t be more pleased with that kind of reaction.

Your horror fiction incorporates a bit of Kafka (there’s a lot of bureaucracy!) and some Bentley Little (although with less black humor). Who would you cite as influences on your fiction?

I go back to some of the horrors of working in the corporate world, and certainly there can be some nightmarish aspects to bureaucracy. So I completely understand the Kafkaesque comparison.

You are not the first person to make a Bentley Little comparison. However, I must hang my head in shame, for I have never read Little. From what I know, I’m sure I would enjoy his work.

As far as influences, from an ideation perspective, I would say Rod Serling. The original Twilight Zone television series probably had the single greatest impact on me as a writer. Morality tales resonate greatly with me.

I suppose I’m a big believer in personal responsibility for one’s actions. For better or for worse. And I think that comes through in my writing.

In terms of writing style, I tried very hard not to emulate anyone specifically, but of course, subconsciously I’m sure I did.

I will say that Richard Matheson’s minimal “economy of words” style was a great learning tool for me. Early on, I tended to try and be poetic or lyrical when writing prose. But going back and reading books like I Am Legend helped break me of that bad habit.

In other words, just tell the damn story!

And it might be a cliché at this point, but of course Stephen King. I do add a turn of phrase here and there in some of my stories as an homage to the King. But what I learned most from him was that he never forgot to entertain his Constant Readers. His first collection, Night Shift, is still one of my favorite collections of any genre. I think it represents King at his best; his prose is tight, concise, genuinely unnerving, but most importantly, fun to read.

Lastly, there is usually some theme or message that’s important to me in all of my stories. But at the end of the day, I always try to entertain my readers, rather than preach at them.

 Any possibility of a Taylor Grant novel coming in the future?

I do have both a psychological thriller and supernatural horror novel in various stages of development. But right now, my main focus is producing film, television, and animation for Wattpad WEBTOON Studios.

I do plan to have a novel published in the future, though. Wish me luck!

 You’ve worked in so many incredible fields, but it seems as if you always circle back to horror. Has that always been your genre of preference?

I’d say horror, followed by science fiction, are my two favorite playgrounds. Quite a few of my horror stories have science fiction elements.

I think it goes back to my love of morality tales, and seeds planted by The Twilight Zone (and The Outer Limits). Horror and science fiction are such wonderful genres to explore those kinds of stories.

As you know, horror is not only a genre but also an emotion. And I love the emotional intensity of a good horror story.

 What would you say to people who might wonder how you’ve managed success in so many different writing formats?

 I’ve never had an ego about starting at the bottom in a medium I’ve never written in before.

Often when you’re successful in one medium, it doesn’t necessarily mean you start at the same level in a different one.

For example, I’ve had multiple scripts produced in the animation and kid’s entertainment space. But those credits didn’t mean much when I started my career as a feature film screenwriter.

I started at the bottom when I broke into writing music videos, comics, and even advertising—despite having already been a professional writer in other fields.

I was willing to take lower pay for the opportunity. And that strategy paid off quite a bit. Once you’re in the door and knock their socks off, you can always demand better pay.

I love to learn how to tell stories in new formats. I love the challenge of it, and have a natural curiosity about new ways to tell stories.

I think some people let their ego get in their way and might turn their nose up at an opportunity if it doesn’t meet their artistic or monetary expectations. Especially if they were already established in one medium.

But if I had taken that attitude, I would never have had the opportunity to write in as many mediums as I have.

You were recently promoted to Head of Global Animation at Wattpad WEBTOON Studios. Can you tell us more about what the job entails?

My role is to build and lead a new division for the company specifically in the animation and anime spaces.

It is a complex role and I wear many hats. But essentially, the objective is to develop Wattpad and WEBTOON fiction for film, television, cable, broadcast, streaming, and everything in between.

That said, I do have a slate of live action film and television projects that I’m involved with and am shepherding through development and production. These are projects that I started from scratch when I was running WEBTOON Studios (prior to the merger with Wattpad Studios), and before I shifted my focus to animation.

 You’re now working with Roy Lee (The Ring, It, The Departed) producing the horror feature film Gremoryland, based on a WEBTOON series. What can you tell us about this project?

Gremoryland follows six friends, who are reunited as the sole visitors of a new horror theme park, where they realize that the horrors of the park are not only deadly and related to their pasts, but that they must face their individual fears in order to survive.

It’s being adapted by award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Gabriel Bergmoser, who is incredibly talented and has been a joy to work with. It’s going to be an amazing film.

Working with Roy completes a circle that started many years ago when I was a full-time screenwriter. Roy was briefly attached as a producer to a military thriller project I’d written called Theater of War (later changed to Bloodland).

The project changed hands a few times and ultimately I ended up selling it to prolific film producers Beau Flynn and Tripp Vinson.

Way back then, the Japanese horror wave had not hit America yet. Roy gave me a bootleg VHS copy of a movie that hadn’t hit the states yet called Ringu. He said he was planning to do a remake and that I would love it.

I’ll never forget watching that third or fourth generation VHS tape, which made it even more grainy and creepy. That was the most unnerved a horror movie had made me as an adult in a very long time, and my wife at the time swore off horror movies after that. Ha ha. Thanks Roy!

But to have the opportunity to work alongside Vertigo Entertainment and Roy Lee on Gremoryland is phenomenal. They have such an incredible track record as filmmakers and of course Roy is one of the biggest names in horror.

You’ve written and produced two award-winning short films (The Vanished and Sticks and Stones), but I would imagine producing a large feature like this must be a new experience. Were you ready for it?

I’ve been involved in a handful of short films over the years, from no-budget up to about $60,000. While the scale of those projects was much smaller than Gremoryland, those experiences gave me exposure to the filmmaking process. From development to production, as well as post-production, and how to translate a budget into maximum quality on screen.

On small projects, you must wear multiple hats. I’ve been involved in financing the production, evaluating the marketplace, analyzing and breaking down the screenplay, learning to apply creativity to a budgetary plan to maximize on-screen value, casting, selecting key production personnel, production design, music, editing, sound design, marketing, and distribution.

All that experience will come in handy on Gremoryland. But I’m grateful to have such a great partner as Vertigo Entertainment, who are rock stars at this.

How do you think new media like webtoons are affecting horror?

WEBTOON’s UGC platform has democratized storytelling for a new generation of creators. And our model opens the door to a lot of fresh new voices in the genre.

Sweet Home and All of Us are Dead were both Top 10 Netflix series and both were based on WEBTOON comics. I think this showcases that audiences are ready for horror stories that can come from anywhere.

Gremoryland is another great example of that. The brilliant creator, A. Rasen, is based out of Spain. Our platform provides an endless supply of stories from around the world, and talented creators from all walks of life.

We’re really just getting started!

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and 150 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; her latest short stories appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, Speculative Los Angeles, and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other  Spectacles. Forthcoming in 2021 is the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online at lisamorton.com.